Energy giants hold workers hostage as environmental time bomb ticks away

As the economy falters and the austerity agenda drowns out job creation, oil and coal companies are using their already powerful leverage with brutal disregard for working people and the environment.

Workers in the oil, coal and related industries are literally between a rock and a hard place.

Eke out an existence for your loved ones from currently available jobs and forfeit their future survival. Or, starve.

A case in point is the Keystone XL pipeline project to transport oil from Alberta’s tar sands through the Canada-Montana border to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.

The project, which would constitute the world’s third largest oil field, would ultimately produce up to three times the carbon emissions of traditional oil.

“We have reached a fork in the road,” warns James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

Continuing to “go down this road of exploiting every fossil fuel we have – tar sands, tar shale, off-shore drilling in the Arctic” is creating an irreparable crisis “where our children and grandchildren will have no control over the climate system,” the pre-eminent authority on climate change cautions.

So what do transnational corporations profiting from fossil fuel do?

TransCanada, the Canadian firm behind the project, and the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s main lobby, cynically dangled inflated job prospects and a Project Labor Agreement guaranteeing the pipeline would be constructed by union labor to entice building trades unions already suffering from mass unemployment in their ranks.

Some argued, with justification given the pipeline’s hugely destabilizing effect on the environment and humanity’s future, that the unions would do better to forgo this project, instead fight for jobs to renew the nation’s infrastructure.

However, those protesting the project would do better to put their organizational strength behind the fight for infrastructure renewal, if they expected a sympathetic ear from construction workers.

What of workers operating already existing pipelines and oil refineries, and coal mines and coal-fired electric plants?

The Blue-Green Alliance Jobs21, including 12 of the nation’s largest unions and several long-established environmental groups, has formulated a comprehensive plan to shift to a sustainable economy centered on energy conservation and conversion to clean energy sources.

Undoubtedly taking the lead from the Blue-Green Alliance, in February the AFL-CIO Executive Council called on the president and Congress to introduce this year “comprehensive” jobs creation legislation guaranteeing “environmental sustainability.”

But the labor federation also insisted on a “just transition for workers and their communities that would be harmed due to changing energy sources and technologies.”

Active support by all of us, including environmental activists, for a “just transition” would go far in winning over workers whose livelihoods depend on oil or coal production.

However, the Republican-led austerity stranglehold in Congress will have to be broken for these proposals, which presuppose a bigger federal government role, to see the light of day.

That means starting today to strengthen the coalitions that will defeat Republicans in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

Essential in this process are energy workers whose self-interests lie in moving to a sustainable economic and political order.

Shows of solidarity with these workers and their unions, now under fierce attack by the energy corporations, are the confidence-building blocks leading to broader overall unity necessary to break the power of the oil and coal barons.

Guided by the union mantra, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” the AFL-CIO, many of its affiliates and fraternal independent unions have come in recent years to embrace the various social movements and made their causes the cause of labor.

That includes the fight for a sustainable economic and political order.

At the recent “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” conference leaders and activists of many of the nation’s largest unions and environmental groups together explored ways to build on already successful joint initiatives.

They include areas where there is widespread agreement as in weatherizing public buildings and homes, sustainable infrastructure renewal and public mass transit renovation and expansion.

The electoral and legislative process, while the principal form of struggle today, is not the only one that needs to be developed.

The times call for militant action with an eye to winning widespread public support, if not immediately, over time.

Yes, action that disrupts the business-as-usual paradigm.

Actions like the 1930s Flint GM autoworkers plant sit-down strike that led to the organization of the auto industry and the 1960s Civil Rights non-violent civil disobedience that broke the back of South’s Jim Crow segregation.

Such militant non-violent acts of civil disobedience contributed mightily to sparking the broad movements leading to the 1930s New Deal reforms that brought us unemployment insurance and social security and the 1960s Great Society reforms that resulted in new civil rights laws, Medicare and Medicaid.

While we struggle for more immediate partial reforms, the time calls for floating more advanced demands that will resonate with large sections of the American people.

These include turning major sectors of the economy, like energy, into public utilities, democratically run for the benefit of the nation, people, and nature.

Photo: Sasha Y. Kimel/Flickr (CC)


Juan Lopez
Juan Lopez

Juan Lopez is chairman of the Communist Party in northern California and statewide coordinator. He has been a labor and community activist during the nearly forty years he's lived in Oakland, where he and his wife raised three children. He was formerly a member of the Teamsters union and a shop steward.